Story Update (September 5, 2022)
Viking river cruises have posted an advisory from Danube River cruises that ship swapping may occur. I explain ship swapping in the section: What Happens If Your Cruise Is Affected By Water Level?
The original story starts here:
The climate in Europe is changing and not for the better. Europe is now seeing the same kind of climate change conditions that are affecting the Western United States. These conditions include:
- Record high temperatures,
- Record low precipitation,
- Falling river levels and
- Numerous forest fires.
Lately, Europe has seen temperatures exceeding 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit). As a result, river levels are falling to critical levels. One of the most popular rivers, the Rhine has river levels falling fast.
The Ups And Downs Of River Levels
Unlike ocean cruising, river cruising has a lot of fluctuations in water levels. These levels can swing widely both up and down. The problem with river cruises is that they are affected by both high and low water levels. There are no uniform river flows and water levels are unpredictable.
If the region has had an excess of rain, raising the river greatly, the river ship may have problems clearing bridges and other obstacles. If the level is too low, the vessel may run aground or need an alternative docking arrangement.
A river level that is too high or too low can affect an otherwise great cruising experience.
Europe has many rivers where cruise lines operate. The two most popular are the Rhine and the Danube.
The Telling Signs Of Falling River Levels
The first example of river distress is the Po River in Northern Italy. This river begins in the Alps near the Italy-French border and is fed by snowmelt. The Po River flows 400 miles across the top of Italy from the Alps to the Adriatic Sea. Italy is in the worst drought in over 70 years. In June, there were places along the Po that completely dried up. At the other end of the Po, ocean water has flooded the last 12 miles of the river damaging crops and contaminating drinking water.
The next indicator of river flow problems is the Thames River in England. The first five miles of headwaters have completely dried up. The drought category in England has reached the most severe designation of “severe drought”.
How Riverboats Are Made
I was sailing aboard the Avalon Vista two months ago on a cruise from Amsterdam to Basel, Switzerland along the Rhine River. The first thing that I noticed when I boarded is that all river ships are built to similar dimensions. It is the standard architecture that gives the river boat some leeway with rising and falling river levels.
The typical characteristics of river boats regardless of cruise line are about the same. The key dimensions of the Avalon Vista are:
- Length of 430 feet,
- Beam (width) of 40 feet,
- Draft (depth) of 6 1/2 feet and
- Maximum capacities of 164 passengers and 47 crew.
Navigating The Changing River Levels
River boats are built in such a way that for bridge clearance, the mast, pilot house, and sun shades can be lowered. On the other end, river boats are built with a shallow draft of about six feet deep to avoid hitting the river bottom. In times of high water, river boats can reduce their height by:
- Lowering the mast,
- Lowering the pilot house and
- Disassembling the shades on the sun deck.
Another aspect of river cruising is how much water does the ship draft? The draft is the amount of vessel that is below the water line. River boats are unique because they can float in just five to six feet of water. Ocean cruise ships usually have at least 25 feet or more or more of draft which would preclude them from river cruising.
The Rhine vs The Danube
These two rivers are the most popular routes in European river cruising. The Rhine River is more sensitive in terms of river flow because it lacks the dams that are on the Danube River. For that reason, the Rhine River is feeling greater effects of river flow and sooner than compared with the Danube. The Rhine River in general is not that deep. I asked the captain how deep the ship would be if it sank. It turns out that for the most part, if the ship sank, we would be high and dry standing on the sun deck.
When Should You Go On A River Cruise?
This was a question that I asked myself before booking my Rhine River cruise. I took into account the following factors and then made an educated guess:
- Avoiding high river flows,
- Avoiding low river flows and
- Expected weather conditions during the cruise.
Taking all of these factors into account, we booked for mid-June. It turns out that during the second half of the cruise, we were in a heat wave, experiencing very hot temperatures.
What Happens If Your Cruise Is Affected By Water Level?
River cruise lines do have contingency plans for dealing with river flow problems. They may run multiple ships back-to-back where you would transfer to another ship where the river is having navigational issues. Since the ships are nearly identical, if you do transfer to another ship, you should be in a similar stateroom as the original ship. This is known as ship swapping.
The other typical plan is to put the passengers on buses to get around the affected areas. This may involve the cruise line putting you up in one or more hotels and paying for restaurant meals.
What Should You Do?
If you are booked on a river cruise for later this year, do not make any snap decisions. If you voluntarily cancel your cruise you may only get a partial or no refund depending on how close to departure you cancel your cruise. Another factor that should be considered is trip insurance. Having trip insurance may pay you in full depending on your coverage.
Check with your cruise line on current cruising conditions and what you can expect from them. Here is a message that appears on the Viking River Cruise webpage:
The cruise line may elect to cancel your cruise. In this case, you will receive a full refund of your cruise fare. My experience with Viking River Cruises is that if they cancel, they will either refund your money or give you a voucher in excess of the cruise value for you to rebook. When Viking River Cruises canceled my cruise in 2021 for Covid, they gave me a cruise voucher for 125% and some optional packages as an incentive to rebook.
If you are concerned about the water level on your upcoming river cruise, do your due diligence before you take any action.
Global warming is indeed having an effect on European rivers. Europe is experiencing unprecedented drought and heat conditions. The river flows are falling so if you are booked for a cruise this year, check with your cruise line and obtain their current assessment of operating conditions. River flows are never static and are subject to fluctuations that are unpredictable. Do your homework and always make informed decisions.